Di Wu

Grant Type

Dissertation Fieldwork Grant

Institutional Affiliation

Massachusetts Inst. of Technology

Grant number

Gr. 10357

Approve Date

April 13, 2022

Project Title

Wu, Di (Massachusetts Inst. of Technology) "Humanizing Artificial Intelligence: The Labor, Identity, and Activism of Disabled Data Workers in China’s AI Sector"

DI WU, then a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was awarded funding in April 2022 to aid research on “Humanizing Artificial Intelligence: The Labor, Identity, and Activism of Disabled Data Workers in China’s AI Sector,” supervised by Dr. Stefan Helmreich. This research explores how data workers with disabilities in China’s artificial intelligence (AI) sector refigure technology, identity, and the disability movement through high-tech labor. While existing scholarship has produced rich results on how tech work empowers or exploits, includes or excludes, people with disabilities, this research considers disabled people as not on the receiving end of technological promise or peril, but as experts actively involved in constructing the technical, social, and political aspects of technologies. The study conducted twelve months of archival research and multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in a disabled persons’ organization (DPO) with a team of over sixty AI data annotators and numerous collaborations with tech companies. Contrary to popular imaginary, the research finds that disabled persons are not a “natural fit” for data annotation, but significant labor and expertise went into inventing, adjusting, and maintaining data annotation as a “suitable profession” for disabled persons. While disabled activists see tech labor as a platform for advocacy, workers with disabilities derive their meaning of work from daily freedoms in consumption, mobility, and independent living. Alliance with the tech sector is expected to afford the movement freedom-enhancing tools, financial resources, and political space, but with risks of overriding disabled people’s expertise.